Centuries ago, there was a pandemic – of sorts. The atmosphere had become toxic. The more people met, the more they gathered, the more this disease spread. There was a revolutionary among them, who felt that there was a cure out there to this toxicity. As he searched for the cure, he self-isolated, so as not contract the illness, nor play a part in its spread.
The main symptoms included worship of false gods, immorality and inhumanity at all levels in varying degrees, the usurping of rights, especially those of women, and an underlying greed and selfishness. It was spreading rapidly, and there seemed to be no cure – no end.
Finally, in order to bring an end to this pandemic and revive those who had proverbially died, God Himself sent the cure, as Muhammad (sa)– who sat in isolation – received his first revelation in the lunar month of Ramadan. Thus, Islam began – in isolation.
The month of Ramadan is the most sacred time of the year for Muslims all around the world. It entails fasting from dawn till dusk, abstaining from all kinds of food and drink, along with a greater focus on worship in an effort to attain a stronger bond with God Almighty. It’s true essence can be found by examining the word Ramadan itself. The Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) explains:
‘The burning of the sun is called Ramd. Since one abstains from food, drink, and all physical delights during Ramadan, then also establishes a zeal and fervor for [fulfillment of] the commandments of Allah; the spiritual and physical zeal and burning combine to make Ramadan’[i]
Thus, Ramadan is a combination of the physical and the spiritual. The physical difficulties (’burning’) that come about from the sacrifices of abstinence from food, drink, and other enjoyments of life enable the soul to attain spiritual enhancement. On the same token, the soul’s burning passion for spiritual enhancement is what encourages the body to undertake such hardships upon itself. In fact, these precepts of Ramadan are aptly reflected through the perfect example of the Holy Prophet (sa). His soul ardently yearned and longed to find God and be one with Him; ‘And He found thee wandering in search of Him.’[ii] This fervor enabled his body to make the necessary physical sacrifices; climbing up a steep mountain into the depths of a dark cave to isolate in worship, separate from his family, outcast from the society around him, with the scarcest of means for nourishment. This in turn, enabled him to attain the spiritual heights he ardently searched for. Thus did the rest of his life pan out – physical sacrifice encouraged by spiritual longing, resulting in the attainment of heightened spirituality.
Ramadan is a clear reflection of this very concept. It entails sacrifice; sacrifice of the mind, body and soul.
The physical sacrifice of giving up food and drink even though it’s readily available. Why? In order to focus more on satiating the soul’s longing for spiritual nourishment.
The physical sacrifice of standing in prayer for extended periods of time throughout the day, even aside from the five daily prayers; and then sacrificing sleep to wake up in the middle of the night to offer supererogatory prayers. Why? To fulfill the soul’s fervor for seeking repentance, to pray for family and friends, and most of all, attaining a heightened and stronger relationship with God.
Thus does the physical Ramd, combine with the spiritual Ramd, resulting in Ramadan. This also means that the rites of Ramadan cannot be performed as mere superficial service. If the physical burning is not met with spiritual zeal and vice versa, then the month will pass by without one having experienced Ramadan. Ramadan is not mere ritual; it’s a way of life. The Holy Prophet (sa) once said, ‘When the month of Ramadan enters, the gates of heaven are flung open and the gates of hell are shut, and satans are chained.’[iii] The words, ‘when the month of Ramadan enters’ refer to Ramadan, its spirit and its essence, entering one’s heart. Ramadan is not limited to mere fasting, rather its true form is when it enters one’s heart and becomes a way of life, as a result of the due sacrifices being made.
If this is the case, it means that this way of life, or its effects – including physical sacrifices – transcend the month itself. Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra), second Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community elaborates on this point:
‘Fasting endows one with the ability to bear hardship. Those who are used to bearing any sort of hardship do not lose hope during difficult times, instead they face them with bravery and are successful in doing so…Thus, fasting inculcates the habit of sacrifice in a nation…The Holy Prophet (sa) once said that fasting is not simply averting one’s mouth from food and drink, in fact fasting also connotes abstaining from vain speech, Thus, fasting is also avoiding foul speech, avoiding fighting and quarreling, and it is also necessary to avoid other vanities as well. Thus speaking less is also a part of Ramadan. Eating less, speaking less, sleeping less and decreasing physical relations, all four are part of Ramadan…When a person who is fasting decreases these four means of ease and comfort, he inculcates the habit of bearing hardships and is able to find success in boldly confronting any difficulty in life.’[iv]
Not only does the concept of fasting transcend simply not eating, but the concepts of sacrifice and hardship transcend the month of Ramadan. The Second Caliph (ra) likens it to an army, which trains for certain periods of the year in order to stay ready for any sort of situation that may arise. Their training is such that whenever called upon, they are able to endure whatever comes their way. So too does Ramadan prepare Muslims to endure whatever may come their way. To adopt the spirit of Ramadan is to increase tolerance to hardships of any kind.
Ramadan also serves as a reminder of what could be, or what is – seemingly far from home. The struggle of the less fortunate, those unable to eat for extended periods of time and those who suffer on a daily basis. But this year, Ramadan could not have come at a more opportune time.
This year, everything hits closer to home. What people have known to be their lives – for their entire lives – has effectively changed. Jobs have been lost, schools have been closed and majority of the world has been confined to their own homes. Graduations cancelled, weddings postponed, funeral services compromised, patients and frontline workers alike succumbing to the effects of this disease; it’s an entirely new reality. It is certainly a difficult time, a time when not only sacrifices must be made, but hardships must be endured. If ever there were a time to adopt the spirit and essence of Ramadan and the lessons it teaches, it’s now.
If there is a sacrifice to me made, it may be as simple as staying in isolation- if that can even be called a sacrifice. But for many, that is the hardest part of this entire ordeal. Many studies show that social distancing and isolation can have various forms of negative effects on the mind and even body. Hans Kluge, director of the European branch of the World Health Organization said:
“Isolation, physical distancing, the closure of schools and workplaces are challenges that affect us, and it is natural to feel stress, anxiety, fear and loneliness at this time”[v]
Yet, amidst the hardship, Muslims have an opportunity to tap into the spirit of Ramadan and employ the lessons they’ve learned of dealing with and combating hardships. It’s also an opportunity to re-visit the very origins of Islam, so heavily linked to this month, as ‘The month of Ramadan is that in which the Qur’an was revealed as a guidance for mankind,’[vi] It was on that momentous Ramadan night, as the Prophet Muhmmad (sa) sat in isolation, that revelation of the Holy Qur’an began, thus initiating the religion of Islam. Under the newly imposed laws of social distancing and isolation, Muslims can follow this example of deep thought, devotion and prayer which lead the Prophet Muhammad (sa) to such spiritual heights.
But there is yet another incident which took place on the very same night. After the pinnacle of Divine communion had been reached, his soul having received what it sought, the Prophet Muhammad (sa) hurried down the mountain – still awe-struck – and narrated the incident to his beloved wife Khadijah (ra). As he expressed his worry, she reminded him of the sacrifices he had made to reach this point:
‘You treat your kith and kin with love. You are truthful, and assist others in discharging their responsibilities, and have gathered in yourself lost virtues. You are hospitable, and a helper to others in the way of truth.’[vii]
In a society where these things were few and far between, Hazrat Khadijah (ra) reminded him of the sacrifices he had made to uphold such values. That was the night when the joining of physical Ramd and spiritual Ramd was realized; and for the first time, the true essence of Ramadan was born.
What this testimony shows, is that in order to reach God, in order to truly find Him and establish the highest form of connection with Him known in the history of humankind, the Prophet Muhammad (sa) focused on service to humanity. His beloved wife, the closest witness to his true character, bore testimony to the way in which he served humanity before being commissioned as a prophet. But his dedication to the service of humanity after his prophethood has been testified to by the greatest Witness of all, God Almighty Himself.
‘Surely, a Messenger has come unto you from among yourselves; grievous to him is that you should fall into trouble; he is ardently desirous of your welfare; and to the believers he is compassionate, merciful.’[viii]
He could not bear to see others in hardship, to the extent that something as simple as the thought of a mother’s worry when her child cried during prayer brought pain to the Prophet Muhammad’s (sa) heart and so he would hasten the prayer.[ix] He brought a death upon himself in order to revive the world. He endured the loss of loved ones, the torture of companions, only because he sought the greater good, and could not bear to think of a God-less, immoral, inhumane world. And so he strove, and he strove, and he strove to establish humanity in the world, to establish morality and to establish the Unity of God in the world. And even when the thought of having done all he could was not enough for him, God Almighty yet again testified to his unmatched care and love for humanity, ‘Haply thou wilt grieve thyself to death because they believe not.’[x]
It was thus that the Holy Prophet (sa) established a person’s greatest responsibility as being service to humanity, second only to serving God. In fact, he showed that it is in serving God’s creation that one can truly serve God and fulfill one’s rights to Him.
Ramadan marks a time of heightened worship, heightened sacrifice and a greater focus on the Divine. But it must be realized that if one desires to achieve this, it cannot be done without a heightened sense of service to humanity. The Holy Prophet (sa) was already extremely generous and bountiful, yet it is recorded that during the month of Ramadan, his generosity would increase so much that he would give charity faster than storming winds.[xi] It is from examples like these that we are able to understand that one of the most important and integral aspects of Ramadan is increased service to humanity.
In today’s times, service to humanity is that much more important. In fact, the Promised Messiah (as) has stressed that especially in times like these where a pandemic has spread, caring for and serving humanity is of paramount importance. When the plague had spread, he advised.
‘Whoever, by Divine Decree, is afflicted with the plague; be supportive of them and their relatives and help them in any way, and do not leave even the slightest effort in their treatment.’[xii]
It is often said that technological advancements have turned the world into a global village. Perhaps now, more than ever, the world must truly come together as a village, helping one another as neighbors; looking out not just for ourselves, but the greater good, and humanity at large. So, in light of today’s circumstances, how can we serve our communities or increase in our charity this Ramadan? Well, when the simple act of meeting someone with a smiling face can be considered an act of charity[xiii] then indeed any good we do for the benefit of others, especially humankind at large can be considered an act of charity. This means that staying home, in isolation, not going out and about as we normally would in order to stop the spread of this pandemic in our families, communities, countries and the world as a whole can also be considered an act of charity; when done for the sake of service to humanity and for the sake of God. This, along with countless other ways of serving humanity, now and always, are what truly enable one to inculcate within themselves, the essence of Ramadan resulting in a true connection with God, and thus does a permanent change come about within a person.
In his Friday Sermon delivered on April 24, 2020, His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) stated,
‘…turning your attention purely towards Allah Almighty, abstaining from even the lawful things purely for His sake, tolerating hunger and thirst for His sake, paying greater attention towards the worship of Allah Almighty than before and paying particular attention towards fulfilling the rights of His servants – when one fulfills these injunctions, this in essence is true Taqwa [righteousness] and this is the very purpose of Ramadan and fasting. When a person observes the fast and passes through the month of Ramadan with this objective and for this purpose and does so with pure intentions then this will not bring about a temporary transformation. Rather, it will be a permanent change.‘
Hence, if we want to get through this difficult time, we must sacrifice and adopt the true spirit of Ramadan; and if we want to adopt the true spirit of Ramadan, we must adopt service to humanity.
[i]Al Hakam Volume 5 Number 27, July 24, 1901, Page 2
[ii]The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 93 Verse 8
[iii]Bukhari Kitabus Saum
[iv]Tafsir-e-Kabeer by Hazrat Musleh Mau’udraVolume 2 Pages 376-377
[vi]The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 2 Verse 186
[vii]Bukhari Kitab Bad’ul Wahi
[viii]The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 9 Verse 128
[ix]Bukhari Kitabul Azan
[x]The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 26 Verse 4
[xi]Bukhari and Musim
[xii]Malfuzat Volume 5 Page 194-195, 1988 Edition)